With five of his six rings coming with the Purple and Gold, it’s natural to associate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Los Angeles Lakers. But the towering center was at his most dominant self with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks were gifted Abdul-Jabbar, the top pick of the 1969 NBA Draft. Immediately, the UCLA star became the top player in the sport and helped guide Milwaukee to a ring in its third year of existence. But his time in Wisconsin was short-lived, as the superstar was traded to LA ahead of the 1975-76 season.
It’s been well-documented that Kareem was unhappy for a while in Milwaukee. But an unspeakable tragedy truly put everything into perspective and caused him to long for a new, yet familiar, home.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a dominant force with the Milwaukee Bucks
We see a number of rookies enter the NBA and immediately prove they belong. When Abdul-Jabbar joined the Bucks on the eve of the 1970s, he made a case as the league’s best player.
Kareem’s Rookie of the Year campaign saw the 7-foot-2 big man average 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds. In year two, the center won his first scoring title and MVP with 31.7 points and 16.0 rebounds per game. By his third year, Abdul-Jabbar was up to a career-high 34.8 points and a whopping 16.6 rebounds en route to Milwaukee’s first title and a second MVP award.
Abdul-Jabbar was only with the Bucks for six seasons, but they were as productive as can be. Not only did the big man average 30.4 points and 15.3 rebounds, but he also won three MVPs, two scoring titles, a Rookie of the Year, and a Finals MVP.
As Kareem went, so did the Bucks. Milwaukee averaged 60.8 wins in each of his five seasons in green. It wasn’t until his final year in 1974-75 when the Bucks fell below .500 for the first time since their inaugural 1968-69 season.
A gutwrenching tragedy made Abdul-Jabbar long for home
Kareem was a big man who was used to a big city. The 7-2 skyscraper was born and raised in New York City before playing his college ball in Los Angeles. So it’s not a surprise that Abdul-Jabbar didn’t fit in when he was drafted by a team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But besides the cultural differences, Abdul-Jabbar simply missed home. Especially after a terrible incident put his life, as well as his family’s life, in danger.
On Jan. 18, 1973, two adults and five children were murdered in the Hanafi Muslim massacre. The victims were all living in a Washington D.C. house owned by Abdul-Jabbar that was being used as Muslim headquarters.
The murders gained national attention. Unfortunately, the majority of the attention landed on the NBA star (h/t: Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s).
Over the following weeks and months, there was talk that Abdul-Jabbar was the next target. He was protected by armed bodyguards — the last thing he wanted. Really, what he desired was to be back home in New York, to play for the Knicks and once again have a familiar foundation surrounding him.Jeff Pearlman
It was easy to see why Abdul-Jabbar would want to be in a familiar place based on what he said a few weeks after the murders.
“I’m not afraid for myself,” Kareem told Sports Illustrated. “I’m afraid for my family. These [the murderers] are not very brave people and they are very sick.”
The Knicks weren’t able to bring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Big Apple
When Kareem officially requested a trade in 1975, two years after the Hanafi Muslim massacre, the New York Knicks sat atop his wishlist. Basketball reasons aside, he would be back home and near his family once again.
But ultimately, the Knicks couldn’t make a deal happen.
According to the New York Times, the Knicks could have had Abdul‐Jabbar for $4 million in cash without trading any players. That didn’t work because New York was already committed to signing George McGinnis, the ABA’s leading scorer.
This opened the door for the Lakers to send Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman to Milwaukee for Abdul-Jabbar. LA, for what it’s worth, was the Hall of Famer’s second choice.
“I had a strong desire to return home,” Abdul-Jabbar said to the NY Times after the deal. “But the Lakers made a sincere effort to get me, and that wasn’t the case with New York. I don’t think it’s smart to go around people who don’t really want you.”
Abdul-Jabbar would go on to spend 14 seasons with the Purple and Gold, winning three more MVPs and becoming the all-time scoring leader in NBA history. Meanwhile, McGinnis never went on to play for the Knicks, as his contract was voided by NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien.
All basketball aside, it was clear that Kareem wanted to be back in NYC, especially after the tragedy in ’73. It’s just a shame the Knicks weren’t able to do their part.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.